The following is a sermon delivered in 1971, at the tenth anniversary of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ installation as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1961, Richard John Neuhaus was installed as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Several days later he wrote me. “Installed Misericordias Domini—much pomp, ceremony, and incense.” It was the last word I heard from him for almost six months. It was as though he had been swallowed up by the city and his new congregation. For Fr. Richard as well as for the people of St. John’s the day of installation was a glorious occasion. For him it was the realization of a dream he had had since early in his seminary days, and for the people of St. John’s it was, they hoped, the beginning of a new day.
Though the installation was celebrated with much pomp, ceremony, and incense, and with fervent prayers that God would bless the new past, it was not a time of great hope and promise for St. John’s. The 1950s were harsh years for the congregation—declining membership, lack of support from neighboring congregations, desperate financial problems, and, from the district, lack of sympathy and understanding. Indeed the financial crisis was so serious that the congregation could not promise him a regular salary.
Yet there were some signs of hope and promise. Fr. Klopf, the previous pastor, had sensed the challenge of a genuinely urban ministry, had begun to meet the challenge; he had enriched and deepened the liturgical and sacramental life of the congregation, and he was a pioneer among Lutherans in racial integration.
Over the next ten years Fr. Richard gained notoriety and acclaim among the men and women of this world. To many he is known as one of the most courageous opponents of the bloody war in Indo-China , to others he is known as a leader in the civil-rights movement, yet to others he is known as a popular writer and speaker, and to yet others he is an enterprising young politician who will someday hold political office.
It must come as something of a shock to many of these people to realize that over the last yen years the bulk of his time has been spent in a ministry whose chief work is preaching, baptizing, celebrating the Eucharist, teaching, counseling the troubled, comforting the sick and bereaved. These things are not highly praised among men, but in God’s sight, and in the Church’s sight, there is no higher or nobler work. I say this not out of some romantic notion of the Church, but out of an honest realism of what really counts.
The relation between a pastor and his people, and the relation between the people and their pastor, is always something of a mystery. It is quite unique among the ties that bind human beings together. Think for a moment about the different relations you have with other people. Take the relation between you and your boss or supervisor. Though a great deal depends on it, there are so many barriers that it can never be very deep. Or the school child to his or her teacher. One can grow very attached to a teacher, but there comes a time when you must part ways, ad there are moments in your life that can never be shared with a teacher. Even a doctor, even if he is a sensitive and human person, only touches your life at moments of crisis—sickness, accidents, death.
But the relation between pastor and people is of wholly different order. He is with you in times of sickness and death, but he is also with you after the birth of a new baby, at a baptism, at confirmation or at first communion or at your wedding. He has probably been in your home and knows members of your family. He may have sat with you for ours working through problems n your marriage or difficulties with a teenage son. He may have buried an aging mother or father.
By the same token you know your pastor in a way that you know few other people, especially after ten years. Somewhat facetiously I might say that it is a credit to the people of St. John’s that you were willing to put up with the goings and comings of Fr. Richard for these ten years. But more seriously, to live and work together these years you have had to put up with things you may not have liked or understood. You have endured his faults and weaknesses. You have also sensed that Fr. Richard was also a human being with needs and desires—that he too needed to be loved, accepted, that he needed your friendship and fellowship. He too has his ups and downs, his times of grief and sadness, his moments of doubt and uncertainty. But out of these uniquely personal relations—he as pastor and you as congregation—together you have forged at this place vital and rewarding ministry of word and sacrament.
It is appropriate, I think, that the anniversary of Fr. Richard’s installation should fall during the Easter season, just as it was appropriate that the installation itself should fall within two weeks of Easter. Easter is many things in the life of the Church. It is the great festival of victory and exultation, though Lent has always been kept rigorously by Lutherans, and St. John’s is no exception. The long weeks of Lent with the readings from the Passion of Christ, the violet covers over crosses and sacred pictures, the somberness of the chancel, the praying of the stations on the cross, the haunting Lenten songs. Easter comes crashing in at the end of Lent with trumpets, shouts of joy, songs of jubilation, a mood of exaltation. But Easter is also the great festival of hope, of expectation, of anticipation, even of yearning.
And it is the dominant note of hope that, more than anything else, characterizes the ministry of Fr. Richard and St. John’s. Hope amidst suffering, hope when men know only defeat and despair, hope when death seems to smother out the shoots of life springing from the hearts of men, hope for our society, our world, our city, our schools, courts, prisons, legislatures, hope for our children, for our elderly, hope for all the millions of men and women over the face of this globe who simply want to live out their lives as free human beings not trampled down and stepped on by the overlords of this world.
Over the years Fr. Richard has spoken about this hope in many different ways. At one time he spoke about the vision of Maujer Street—a vision of a life of genuine community between people in the midst of a great city; more recently he has spoken of the Kingdom of God, the hope for a future where God’s rule would more fully permeate the lives and institutions of men on this earth. But whatever the language, it sprang from the conviction that the only genuine hope, the only hope really worth hoping for, the only hope worth believing, the only hope which was not an illusion, was a hope grounded in God, the God whom we Christians know through the life and the mighty victory of Jesus Christ over the power of death.
The things for which the people of St. John’s have given themselves will change. Once this congregation was group of German immigrants living in what was then farmland across the river from New York City—that was over a hundred years ago—and the primary goal seemed simply to keep the struggling congregation from folding, at another time the chief task seemed racial integration, at another outreach into the community, at another service to the community and social action, at another learning to worship God in Spanish. And who knows what the future will bring. Whatever it is that claims the hearts and energies of future generations of people here, the new vision will spring from the same conviction, the same trust, the same confidence that the God who raised Jesus Christ is faithful and good.
Hope, confidence, trust—in the midst of a world where there seems so little reason for hope—these are the marks of Fr. Richard’s ministry and the ministry of St. John’s.
If you will permit me, I should like to close with a passage from a letter from Fr. Richard written in 1961. At the time he was serving as one of the Protestant Chaplains at Kings County Hospital to support himself during his first months at St. John’s. He spent the day at the hospital and during breaks he wrote a lengthy twenty-one-page letter of his experiences at the hospital and at St. John’s. The letter described some of the scenes in the hospital during the day and closed with his reflections on an unnamed baby who had just been born. He wrote,
I just saw “baby boy Washington” enter life with a cry. He does not yet know how much he will have to cry about. His mother is unmarried and does not want him. He will be turned over to the city for a life on not being wanted. This is true of more than one third of all the hundreds of babies delivered here. I don’t think his prospects are very good for finding love, happiness, joy, purpose. . . . I am not depressed—only filled with wonder. Wonder at the glory and tragedy of life in this city. In a little while I will drive home and can count on being struck again by the New York skyline—a never failing object of adoration. The city and the potential of the civilization it represents—to this I am religiously committed. And the ways of the God who brought it into being. ‘What is man, that you keep him in mind?’ Little baby boy Washington—fear not, He has redeemed you. He has called you by the name you do not yet have, you are His! I cannot guarantee you that this is true. It may be a pious illusion. But it is better than what is called the truth by men, but just must be illusion. You are not alone.
He has redeemed you. He has called you by your name. Amen.
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial advisory board of First Things, is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.